Two inmates at the State Correctional Institute at Fayette lovingly trained a new dog for a woman whose dogs died in a fire in Mill Run in February.
Amanda Ritenour, who has cerebral palsy, had tried desperately to save her dogs as her house burned Feb. 25. Her neighbor, SCI-Fayette Lt. Jason Dongilli, rushed over to the house to try to help extinguish the fire.
“Amanda was actually trying to crawl back into the house to get her dogs,” he said.
The house was not insured. Since her house and her two dogs could not be saved, he wanted to find a way to help. The Luzerne Township prison works with Humane Animal Rescue in Pittsburgh. Dogs that need extra training before adoption are trained by inmates for six weeks or more through the prison’s Developing Animals With Goals (DAWGS) program. Ritenour’s new dog, Fluffy, was in training for about three months.
Ritenour also received a new mobile home June 25, in addition to the dog. Donations from prison staff and the community paid for a down payment on the house, the dog and pet supplies.
“Amanda, this is our honor to bring your family to some kind of normal after that devastating fire,” said prison Superintendent Mark Capozza.
She was ecstatic to meet her new dog, Fluffy, a 1-year-old poodle mix.
“Thanks very much for doing it for me,” she said to the inmates who trained her dog. “It means a lot.”
“It was a pleasure to be able to do it for you,” said Robert, one of the inmates who trained Fluffy with Tom, his cellmate. “We know you’ll take good care of him. We’re gonna miss him. He’s a bundle of joy.”
Robert showed Ritenour how he trained Fluffy to sit, stay, lie down, rollover and other basic obedience training.
Fluffy had a hard time staying when Robert and Tom said goodbye. He watched them attentively as they walked away. They stopped to give the dog one last look before they left through the door.
“Bye, Fluffy,” Robert said before he turned to leave for his cell. “She’ll be OK. She’ll take care of you.”
The experience was bittersweet for the inmates. They became bonded to the dog, and the dog became bonded to them. Fluffy, who was named Rolo before Ritenour renamed him, lived in the cell with the inmates.
The prison asked inmates be identified only by their first names and asked their faces not be displayed in pictures.
There have been 44 successful adoptions since the program started at the prison in May 2017. Both of them have trained several dogs through the program.
“Never one as special as him, though,” Robert said.
Fluffy was different, they said. It was meaningful to train the dog for someone so deserving. But it was harder, too, because the little dog learned to trust them and continuously looked to them for comfort and cuddles.
“It’s amazing how such a small dog can have such a big impact on you,” Tom said. “But he did.”
Smaller dogs tend to latch onto their owners, he said. Fluffy knew he was safe with them.
“It gives you a better feeling about yourself. I hope that’s what (Amanda) gets out of it too,” Tom said.
Training the dog gave him confidence, he said, just as the dog gained confidence through the training.
“Just knowing you can take something that comes to you broken, and you can turn it into this prideful bundle of joy,” he said.
They put extra effort into training Fluffy to be sure he would be a good dog for Ritenour and comfortable with things like the sound of a wheelchair.
“It’s bittersweet, I guess, to see him go to a new home and have a new meaning,” Tom said. “I certainly gained a friend through the process. But now he’s going to her, and she’ll have a new best friend.”
Training the dog gave Tom a piece of life outside the prison walls. He said it reminded him that life outside is much better, and just on the horizon.
“In here, it gives you a better outlook,” he said. “There is kindness and love, and it’s to come. It helps you feel better, and see things will be better once you get out of here.”
Training the dogs is both rewarding and challenging, Robert said. He said he gains fulfillment training dogs who seemed too difficult to be homed. When they become behaved, though, it’s soon time to give them up.
Robert said he wrote a letter about the program, grateful for the opportunity to participate, and shared what the experience means to him as an inmate.
“No matter how bad of a day we’re having – because it’s hard for us to be away from our families – you look up and you see that dog, and he’s jumping all over you,” he said. “They’re forgiving. So people can be the same way.”